Syrian refugee crisis can help "re-energise" relations between Turkey and the EU

The EU-Turkey deal to tackle the Syrian refugee crisis could help "re-energise" EU/Turkey relations and pave a way for a resumption of accession negotiations, a Brussels conference heard. The crisis represents a "wake-up" call for the EU but could also help kick start relations between the two sides.

But before this can happen, several thorny issues, such as a reduction in the number of refugees attempting to cross EU borders, visa liberalization and implementation of readmission agreement by Turkey, had to be overcome, the event on Monday was told.

Dr Demir Murat Seyrek said, "The refugee crisis could have positive repercussions on EU/Turkey relations if both parties overcome their mutual distrust."

Seyrek, a senior policy advisor at the European  Foundation for  Democracy, which organised the debate, said the issue of visa liberalisation was particularly important for the millions of  Turkish citizens with relatives in Europe.

But other issues, including the "reluctance" of some EU member states to Turkish accession, had to be addressed before negotiations could restart.

He argued that opening accession chapters, particularly those on the rule of law and justice, could be a useful step forward to tackle the current impasse on EU/Turkey relations.

Another important "symbolic" measure would be acceding to Cyprus’s formal application for Turkish to be recognised as an official language of the EU, he said.

The policy briefing focused partly on the €3 billion deal the EU signed with Ankara in November which is partly designed to help cut the flow of migrants. After more than five years of fighting, more than 250,000 Syrians have lost their lives and 11m have been displaced.

Of the €3bn, Germany will give €427.5m, the UK €327.6m, France €309.2m,Italy €224.0m and Spain €152.8m.

The progress the EU-Turkey deal has had on tackling the crisis will be discussed at a special EU-Turkey summit in Brussels on March 7.

EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos has warned of a "complete breakdown" of the EU's migration system unless progress is made.

Seyrek told the debate that Turkey was currently hosting 2.6m Syrian refugees, a figure that is larger than six EU member states and two and a half times the size of Brussels.

"Turkey has, in fact, been dealing with the issue for four years while the EU has had a late wake-up call to the crisis," he said.

He pointed out that the €3bn fund is aimed at delivering humanitarian assistance, the enhancement of self-sufficiency and participation in the economy, and improved access to education for the refugees in Turkey which is now home to the largest refugee population in the world.

In addition to hosting refugees, Turkey, he said, had also become a transit route in recent years.

The crisis shows no sign of abating. According to latest figures from the UN Refugee Agency more than 80,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe by boat during the first six weeks of 2016.

Seyrek said that while the €3bn from the EU and its member states represented "important support" it was "minor" compared to the €7bn cost Turkey had incurred in tackling the crisis since it started in 2011.

Another keynote speaker, Zeynep Alemdar, of Okan University in Istanbul, agreed, saying she too believes the refugee situation had the potential to help reinvigorate EU-Turkey relations.

However, she warned that with support for EU accession among the Turkish public falling from a high of 70 per cent in 2004 to 50 per cent now, a "lack of trust" between the two sides could hamper any attempt to resume accession talks.

"What we need is an honest relationship between the two parties," she told the packed audience.

Alemdar, also vice president of the Turkey-EU Association, said that as 11 out of every 100 people in Turkey have immigrant backgrounds, it had plenty of experience in addressing the current crisis.

As little as 10 per cent of the Syrian refugees in Turkey actually live in camps and Alemdar said that while the 25 camps housing refugees were in "much better condition" that those in Europe, only 3 per cent of these refugees had been able to obtain work permits.

Another obstacle to refugees finding employment is work quotas - a maximum of ten per cent of staff hired by Turkish companies by law can be immigrants.

It is estimated that more than half of Syrian refugees are children while only 14 per cent of primary school aged children outside the camps are enrolled in school.

In response to a question about the reasons for the apparent breakdown in trust between the EU and Turkey, Alemdar said, "The  EU should not forgot to uphold its own values. You just have to look at what's going on in places like Hungary and Slovenia for evidence of this."

This was a reference to the attempts by some member states, including Hungary, to reinstate border controls, in violation of EU rules on free movement of people. Austria has also been criticised after it placed a cap on asylum seekers.

Another participant said the burden on other countries such as Lebanon, which hosts around a quarter of the 4m Syrians who have fled to neighbouring countries, should not be overlooked.

By Martin Banks

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